Cover Story: Churchill's Greatness

Feature Articles - Finest Hour 112 

Jeffrey Wallin with Juan Williams of Fox News

(Dr. Wallin is President of the American Academy for Liberal Education and an academic adviser to The Churchill Center. Interview copyright 2001 Fox News Network, Inc., reproduced by kind permission.)


BRIT HUME: As you heard, Stephen Ambrose called it a tragedy that William Manchester says he is not able to finish his trilogy on Winston Churchill [see also this issue, Datelines]. Fox News contributor Juan Williams talked to Jeffrey Wallin of The Churchill Center here in Washington about Manchester's unfinished work and about the impact Churchill had on the world.

JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX CORRESPONDENT: Jeffrey Wallin of The Churchill Center, thanks for joining us. William Manchester, the author of two volumes in a Churchill trilogy, The Last Lion, has announced that he cannot complete the third volume of his study on Churchill. How do you find this?

WALLIN: It's a major disappointment. Manchester is one the few historians who still writes with a grand sweep. And, as a consequence, of the two strokes he's had, not being able to finish it, it's very hard to imagine how anyone else will come along and finish it up, although he has left a manuscript of a couple of hundred pages or so. So perhaps there's some hope along those lines.

WILLIAMS: Have you met Manchester?

WALLIN: I have.

WILLIAMS: And what is your impression of Manchester's work so far?

WALLIN: I think it is wonderful. Again, the reason for that is that we live in an age that is made up by small, detailed history. They may be very long, but quite often they go into such tiny and minute detail that one loses the large picture. And Churchill was a large man of the 20th century, a man whose own vision was out decades ahead of many of his contemporaries. So when a biographer comes to him without a similar vision, often what you get are just a number of disconnected pieces, and you don't begin to understand the man as he understood himself, which I think is the beginning of all good biography.

WILLIAMS: Some have argued that Churchill is the most important political figure of the 20th century. Would you agree?

WALLIN: I would. There are two reasons for that. First, his stand for freedom. Churchill stood not only to defend Britain, but also to defend freedom for the world. Second, Churchill managed to embody in himself both a love and display of excellence and deep, abiding democratic convictions. Quite often you get one or the other, but not both. He had a deep belief in the combined wisdom of the people when it was finally brought to bear on an issue. But at the same time, he never abandoned himself to the things we see today, where politicians read polls every day and try to decide where they are going to go based on what people happen to be thinking at any fleeting moment. And so Churchill is important for democracy itself, I think, to show, as Lincoln showed, that great character and great minds can be happy in democratic societies and can flourish in them.

WILLIAMS: As we sit here in the United States, I'm sure there are some viewers who might say: What about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a contemporary of Winston Churchill's? Wouldn't he qualify as the greatest figure of the 20th century?

WALLIN: The problem with the title "greatest" is that there can only be one. If you grant me "great men of the 20th century," Roosevelt would certainly be up there. Certainly one cannot imagine United States history without him, and perhaps one could even say the history of World War II without him. So he was undoubtedly a great man. Churchill's life spanned a longer period of both peace and war. He was involved in the First World War in a responsible position, in the Second World War, and all the great controversies in between them and a good number of them before even World War I. I think Churchill brings a stronger vision to politics than Roosevelt did. And I don't mean to detract from Roosevelt at all, who certainly was a great statesman.

WILLIAMS: What was the vision that Churchill brought to politics?

WALLIN: Churchill's vision was primarily one of the importance of human freedom. In many ways, I think of him as a 20th century parallel to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln thought long and hard and deep about what human freedom really meant in a way that we don't today. If, for example, you walk into a classroom and you say, "How many of you approve of slavery?" everybody will say, "Oh, no. It's terrible." But ask the question: Why? Why is it a bad thing? If you can get someone else in your power, they work and you eat, as Lincoln said. Lincoln thought that if you couldn't answer that question really deep in your soul, you were not able to defend freedom. Churchill's love of freedom comes from the same source as Lincolns. And that is the American Declaration of Independence. He gave a wonderful speech about the Declaration of Independence and the truths that it contained. So I think, when you consider the whole sweep of history, if what you really care about is human freedom and the development of human character from all classes of society -- not just the high and mighty class that he came from himself -- then I think Churchill stands out amongst all men.

WILLIAMS: Hearing you say that Churchill delivered a speech on the Declaration of Independence reminds us that Churchill holds a fascination for Americans, a surprising fascination given that he wasn't an American leader. Why are Americans so taken with Winston Churchill?

WALLIN: Well, partly because he was part American. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American. And so he always considered himself a blend of the two. I think the reason he appeals to Americans was his wonderful speeches that crystallize an incoherent belief of the people. People can have strong convictions and not be able to express them clearly and articulately. That's what Churchill meant when he said he was not the British lion, but the voice of the lion. But at the same time, by crystallizing it, by giving it substance in speech, you create it a little bit, too. I think Americans are drawn to that kind of rhetoric, because Americans have always seen this country as a "city on a hill," as it used to be called. That is, something that stands for a vision beyond itself, a beacon to other countries on how people can live together from diverse backgrounds in different countries, how they can pursue freedom, how they can pursue democracy in a lawful manner. Churchill embodied that. He loved that characteristic about the Americans. And he loved also their spontaneity and can-do attitude. He understood the nature of tyranny. He was not overly concerned whether the tyranny was from the left or the right. He despised the Nazis -- or the "Narrzees" as he called them.

WILLIAMS: He called them the "Narrzees," you said?

WALLIN: Yes. He had a way of saying it that was almost like spitting the word out. He despised the communists. He once said of the communists that the infant Bolshevism should have been strangled in its cradle. He also said that none of the ideas of communism went far beyond the idea of the white ant's view of organizing society. It was quips like that that would bring him to the attention of people all across the world. He loved human freedom. He believed that individual human beings of capable of living their own lives, if well lived.

WILLIAMS: Jeffrey Wallin of The Churchill Center, thank you so much for joining us.

WALLIN: You are welcome, Juan. I enjoyed being here.